Crown Sydney architecture: Foreign-designed buildings now dominate city skyline

When opened, the 75-storey Crown Sydney, which dominates the skyline like Kim Jong-Un's ultimate ballistic missile fantasy, will see its British architect join an ever-expanding United Nations of foreigners to have designed landmark Sydney buildings.

The new hotel, restaurant and casino (pending regulatory approval) complex  is the work of Briton Chris Wilkinson, whose Barangaroo behemoth is adjacent to those of compatriot Richard Rogers in his trio of office skyscrapers.

Further along the point, the Barangaroo headland parklands were designed by an American, the landscape architect Peter Walker. Undoubtedly, Sydney owes much to overseas architects.

Where would the city be without Dane Joern Utzon's Opera House, American Walter Burley Griffin's Castlecrag and even Englishman Francis Greenway's Hyde Park Barracks?

Those stellar buildings and harbourside suburb have been joined by works by modern-day "starchitects" Frank Gehry (US-Canada), Jean Nouvel (France) Norman Foster (Britain), Renzo Piano (Italy) and Kengo Kuma (Japan).

Certainly, they all add interest, amenity and even glamour to Sydney for its citizens and visitors and they also deliver cache to developers, tenants and institutions such as the University of Technology Sydney and its Frank Gehry-designed, saggy sack-like Dr Chau Chak Wing Building in Ultimo.

"Architects can sometimes be seen as de facto marketing or PR tools by their clients and using an international practice is attention grabbing and a selling point," says Linda Cheng, editor of the Melbourne-based website ArchitectureAU.com

"That's not to say that having buildings in Australia designed by international architects is necessarily a bad thing. Australian architects also design buildings overseas and having that kind of cultural exchange can be enriching both for the profession and the wider community."

But some have questioned whether Sydney has been the recipient of the best work of these leading foreign architects, Crown Sydney included, when compared with their overseas projects.

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Dr Philip Oldfield, director of the architecture program at the University of NSW, says Crown Sydney, albeit a privately-owned hotel and casino, compares unfavourably to the internationally-famous Gardens by the Bay project in Singapore, designed by Wilkinson's firm.

"If you look at Wilkinson Eyre's most successful work, it often has a civic quality – it makes [a] city better," he says. "Gardens by the Bay is a design that provides a wonderful public realm, allowing visitors to experience tropical plants in interesting and exciting ways.

"My impression of Crown Sydney is that it doesn't have these public and environmental qualities that Wilkinson Eyre have demonstrated elsewhere. It provides an iconic shape, a landmark for the skyline, but little else for the city."

With a starchitect-struck Sydney and its ragged skyline studded with so many foreign-designed buildings, and more in the pipeline, Australian architects may be entitled to feel overlooked.

"It is really important that we cultivate our local talent," says Olivia Hyde, professor of practice at University of Sydney's School of Architecture, Design and Planning.

"Australian architects rightly feel excluded when the broader system of procurement of projects in the public and private sectors is not structured to seek out and grow their capacity and skills."

But there are successes, according to Oldfield, like 1 Bligh Street, designed by Ingenhoven Architects of Germany and Architectus of Australia, with its open terraces at the base, facing the sandstone buildings, "regularly used for sitting and eating lunch bathed in sunlight."

Ms Hyde also admires Aurora Place in Macquarie Street, built in 1997 and designed by the legendary Italian architect Renzo Piano, "due to its genuinely innovative approaches to residential living in the city."

"The most successful buildings give back more than they take," she says. "Great cities have projects by many architects constructed over time. This can include overseas architects, but in the majority, it should be made up of great works by many local architects."

Anthony Dennis is Traveller editor for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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